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8.660142-43 - WEBER / MAHLER: Drei Pintos (Die)
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Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) completed by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Die drei Pintos

Mahler’s Only Opera?

During the summer of 1820 Carl Maria von Weber, court conductor of the Dresden Opera, completed his romantic opera Der Freischütz. He looked around for something to do next and decided on two projects: incidental music for a new Berlin production of Pius Alexander Wolff’s play Preciosa and a comic opera, Die drei Pintos, to a libretto by Theodor Hell.

Work on Die drei Pintos progressed from July 1821 until 8th November. He intended to stage it at Dresden and dedicate it to the King, but was refused permission. It was therefore not a hard decision to put it aside when he was asked for an opera for the 1822-3 season at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna. Stung by press criticism of the structure of Der Freischütz, he decided that a comic opera would not be an adequate response. A grand opera was the only possible rejoinder, so he started to compose Euryanthe. What happened to Die drei Pintos after this remains something of a mystery and in trying to piece it together, any writer must be fully indebted, as I am, to John Warrack’s chapter on it in his superb and comprehensive Carl Maria von Weber (Cambridge University Press, 1968, rev. 1976).

Die drei Pintos was based on a novella, Der Brautkampf, by Carl Seidel, published in four instalments in the Dresden Abendzeitung in December 1819. The writer Theodor Hell, a Dresden contemporary and friend of Weber, converted it into a three-act opera libretto, cutting and slightly altering the original.

Weber’s plan was that the opera should contain an overture and sixteen numbers, but when he stopped work on it on 8th November 1821 he had sketched only seven. Almost certainly there were more. One of his friends was played parts of Oberon and Die drei Pintos in Berlin in December 1825 when Weber told him that both operas were ‘nearly finished’, but that does not necessarily mean that the music was written down. His English pupil Julius Benedict, in his book on Weber published in 1881, has described how ‘the idea of a whole musical piece would flash upon Weber’s mind, like the bursting of light into darkness. It would remain there uneffaced, gradually assuming a perfect shape, and not till this process was attained would he put it down on paper... The whole was already so thoroughly developed in his brain that his instrumentation was little more than the labour of a copyist’.

Benedict recalled hearing ‘every piece’ of Act 1 of Die drei Pintos ‘as it came fresh from the brain of the author’. He claimed he could ‘remember every note’. Weber’s widow wanted Benedict to complete it, but was persuaded against her will to give the surviving sketches to Jacob Meyerbeer who kept them for twenty years and then said he found the task impossible. They then remained in the possession of Weber’s son Max until his death in 1881 when they passed to his son Capt. Carl von Weber. He knew that Meyerbeer had found the libretto to be weak and had planned a new one. Carl felt that the original text and words of the songs should be retained, but that Meyerbeer’s idea of using music from other works by Weber was worth adopting. Then, in 1886, enter Gustav Mahler, aged 26, newly appointed assistant conductor to Arthur Nikisch at Leipzig Municipal Opera. In the early summer of 1887, Carl handed him the sketches, together with his own version of the libretto, for the conductor to study. At this date Mahler had had none of his own music published. He had written the cantata Das klagende Lied and the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. His first setting of a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn was written in Leipzig from the Weber family’s copy of the Arnim and Brentano anthology and he was just about to compose his first symphony. He agreed to undertake the Pintos task and decided to follow Meyerbeer and to fill out the original with other Weber pieces. What awaited him was what Meyerbeer had discovered in 1846 when he wrote in his diary:

‘These sketches have not only to be orchestrated but figured and harmonized as well. To a large extent Weber has composed only the vocal parts, very seldom written the bass, even more seldom indicated an instrumental figuration. A terrifying task: so little to go on, and yet such work as exists, the singing parts, must be treated in the most conscientious way possible, and I would not leave a note out or change one for any money’.

Mahler set to work in an equally conscientious fashion. At the Webers’ house, he met Carl’s wife, Marion Mathilde, with whom he had an affair and at one time planned to elope. In spite, or perhaps because, of this agreeable diversion, he was able to search through Weber’s scores for suitable additional material. Here is his final scenario, with indications of which ‘extra’ numbers were chosen:

Act 1.
1. Short orchestral introduction composed by Mahler, followed by chorus taken from a piece for two male voice choirs, Das Turnierbankett, written by Weber in 1812.
2. Rondo alla polacca, written by Weber in 1809 for use in a pasticcio based on Haydn devised by his brother Fridolin.
3. Terzettino, from three-part folk-song setting, Ei, ei, ei for male voices, Op. 64, No. 7 (1818). Mahler accompaniment doubles voices.
4. Romanze, from Leise weht es for voice and guitar, written for Friedrich Kind’s play Das Nachtlager von Granada, 1818. Satirical song about a lovesick cat.
Mahler’s orchestral accompaniment.
5. Duet — No. 4 in Weber’s sketches.
6. Trio — No. 5 in Weber’s sketches.
7. Finale — No. 6 in Weber’s sketches.
Entr’acte composed by Mahler on themes from Weber’s sketches.

Act 2.
8. Introduction and ensemble — No. 1 in Weber’s sketches.
9. Ariette, from song Keine lust for voice and piano, Op. 71, No. 1 (1819) and waltz from Ariette der Lucinde written for Kauer’s play Das Sternenmädchen im Maidlinger Wald, 1816.
10. Aria — No. 2 in Weber’s sketches.
11. Duet — No. 3(a) in Weber’s sketches.
12. Trio. Finale — No. 3(b) in Weber’s sketches.

Act 3.
13. Chorus, No. 7 from the Jubel-Cantate for chorus and orchestra, Op. 58 (1818), wholly re-written and rescored by Mahler.
14. Duet — No. 7 in Weber’s sketches.
15. Trio, from Mädchen, ach, canon for three voices, Op. 13, No. 6 (1802). Mahler added ostinato of fourths on timpani and violas.
16. Ariette, from song Mein Weib ist capores, for baritone, written for Anton Fischer’s Singspiel Der travestirte Aeneas (1815).
17. Rondo-Trio, from song Elle était simple et gentillette for voice and piano (1824); part of Gesang der Nurmahal from Moore’s Lalla Rookh, for soprano and piano (1826).
18. Chorus — No. 1 in Weber’s sketches (as in No. 8 above).
19. Women’s chorus, from No. 4 of cantata Den Sachsen-Sohn (1822).
20. Finale A. Composed by Mahler on themes from Act 1.
21. Finale B — No. 7 in Weber’s sketches (as in No. 14 above).

Mahler conducted the first performance of Die drei Pintos on 20th January 1888. Opera conductors and directors from all over Europe (and from New York) attended and it was an immediate success. Fifteen more performances were given in the Leipzig season and it was soon performed in twenty other European opera houses including Vienna, Dresden and Berlin. Mahler wrote to his parents before the première: ‘No one will be allowed to know beforehand what is by me and what is by Weber, or else the critics would have an easy time of it’.

The remarkable thing about Die drei Pintos is how Mahler subjugated his own strong musical personality to Weber’s, although he jettisoned the overture because it was so unmistakably Weber that anything that followed it would seem like imitation or pastiche. In the entr’acte Mahler wrote what John Warrack calls ‘a kind of hommage à Weber by a composer who recognised with affection a musical ancestor’. Throughout the work what seems Weberian often sounds Mahlerian and vice versa. Mahler’s re-scoring is governed by a close and subtle identification with Weber’s musical nature. Pieces by Weber incorporated into the opera which already had orchestral accompaniment by Weber were re-scored by Mahler so that a homogeneity of sound could be preserved. None of the numbers in the opera is based on a theme invented by Mahler, but he needed to invent several linking passages. Although we must wonder what the opera would have been if Weber had left a completed score, we must also wonder how those operas of his own which the youthful Mahler abandoned might have sounded. Die drei Pintos takes us as near as we can ever come to an answer.

Michael Kennedy


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